Post Your Opinion
Question Period
by I. M. Owen

CANADIAN: Helmut Kallmann, who was the first reader to send me a letter after this column began, writes again to jog my memory: in the August-September issue I remarked that the second-most overused word in Canadian English was concern, and promised to report another time on the first-most. Well, it's Canadian. For many years I've been irritated when people said Do you know So-and-so? He's a Canadian painter, or She's a Canadian poet - reflecting an embarrassingly provincial assumption that such people were not to be classed with painters and poets out in the real world. This bad habit is less prevalent now, except on CBC music programs, where the hosts can be excused because they're probably mentally racking up their scores in the Canadian-content game.

But the gap has been more than filled in recent years by the positively obsessive use of Canadian and Canadians by politicians and political journalists, as in Ottawa's plan to slap a nine per cent sales tax on Canadians - as if we might otherwise have thought the tax was to be levied on Albanians. Or listen to Question Period in the House of Commonsit's in almost every question and almosi every answer - Will the minister explain to the House and to Canadians ... ? In the last federal election campaign all three leaders used it as if they had to keep reminding themselves that they weren't participating in the American campaign, and Ed Broadbent went doggedly on with the uninspired phrase ordinary Canadians, which he had also used in 1984. It seems to have gone over like a lead balloon both times.

When you see the adjective Canadian in a sentence, try striking it out; half the time you'll find that nothing is lost. Or substitute people for the noun Canadians, and half the time you'll get the same result.

MELIORATIVES: Another promise I made in the August-September issue was to discuss what I call ethnic melioratives. Now I learn from Charlotte Gray in the December Saturday Night that the word ethnic itself is now considered derogatory in Ottawa, where officials have taken to using two new mehoratives: people of European ancestry other than British, French, or Irish are called multicults, and all others are visi-mins. No doubt these in turn will become, offensive to somebody; which may help to explain why I've hesitated for three months before venturing on this minefield.

I'm still holding out against Inuit, for instance. Peter Ittinuar, the first Eskimo MP, used to please me by always saying Eskimo when he asked questions in the House on behalf of his people; and last year I was still more pleased to see Jim Houston, who introduced most of us to the Eskimo culture, quoted thus in the New Yorker

This Inuit business was all got going by young whites who wanted to become politically prominent in the Eskimo world. Eskimos never got into the discussion.... There's this perfect word, "Eskimo," an Indian word believed, arguably, to mean "eater of raw meat" and certainly not an insult - they still call their co-op the West Baffin Eskimo Coop. When we say "Inuit," we usually use it incorrectly. It means "the people." By the way, Houston shouldn't have called Eskimo an "Indian word": there's no such language. It's Algonkian. Which reminds me that when the people called in their own language the Canienga are speaking English, they are happy and even proud to call themselves Mohawks, though it's an Algonkian word meaning 11 people-eaters." (I hope that people of the kind who imposed Inuit on us don't read this column.) For that matter, I've never heard that the people who call themselves Deutscher object to being called Germans in English, Allemands in French, and Tedeschi in Italian.

An (I hope) unconscious meliorative we often hear is Jewish people, used by those who have an obscure feeling that Jew is a rude word and needs softening. And then of course there's the quite recent substitution of Black for Negro. I can remember when Americans of African descent took such pride in the name Negro that Morison and Commager's The Growth of the American Republic was taken off the shelves of New York libraries because it failed to spell it with a capital N. And since its simply the Spanish and Portuguese word for "black" it's hard to see why it was suddenly rejected. Anti-Hispanic prejudice?

FORMER / FRONT-END LOADING: Here's a prime example from Maclean's. Former Russian cantor's son. Irving Berlin, 101, .... We can't tell if the writer means that the cantor was formerly Russian, or that the father was formerly a cantor (both of which we could have guessed without the use of former) or that Berlin at some time ceased to be his son (which is impossible).

MAY HAVE / MIGHT HAVE: The auxiliary verb may indicates possibility (it may snow tomorrow) or permission (you may go); might was originally its past tense, and in the sense of permission it still is only that (he told me I might go). But in the sense of possibility might has come to be also the weaker form: it might snow expresses more doubt than it may snow.

All this is clear and familiar, and confuses nobody. But when the auxiliary is attached to the perfect tense (may have, might have) confusion has become very common indeed. I say "has become" because it must be recent: neither. Fowler nor Gowers has an entry for may or might, and though The American Heritage Dictionary and Collins (second edition 1986) both have usage notes under may they don't find it necessary to mention this point. Here's an example, in a news story on a drowning: The two, who probably stayed with their boat, may have survived had they swum for shore. If you say they may have survived you must mean that it's possible that they did; might have survived is the phrase to use if in fact they didn't. I keep running across this muddle in typescripts, in print, and (especially) in news broadcasts. And in the course of a few days recently two editors separately asked me to write about it, thus providing independent confirmation of its frequency.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us